Special teams dominate in Vikings’ win

The Vikings tied an NFL record by returning two blocked punts for touchdowns in their 31-13 win over the Carolina Panthers and were nearly as good when the punts ended up in the hands of return man Marcus Sherels.

There is the belief that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, but don’t tell that to the Minnesota Vikings’ special teams, which blocked two punts and returned them for touchdowns. And when punts did get away, the Vikings had big returns to help key a 31-13 blowout win over the Carolina Panthers Sunday.

The Vikings became just the fourth team in the modern era and the first since 1990 to return two blocked punts for touchdowns in a game and the scene was eerily reminiscent of the special teams dominance the Vikings enjoyed when they played at Met Stadium.

It was the first time in 31 years that the Vikings block two punts in a game – a feat accomplished in 1983 when Rick Bell and Randy Holloway both blocked punts against Chicago, but the odds of blocking two and scoring two were astronomical.

Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said his special teams had been looking to make more of an impact and it did in a profound way Sunday.

“Like Coach (Mike Zimmer) says, it’s always a team win,” Priefer said. “We were glad to help out today. We did a great job on the punt rush team and we made some big plays. We felt going into the game that we needed to do that for our football team and our guys came through.”

The first of the blocks came with seven minutes left in the first quarter with the Vikings already holding a 7-0 lead. Adam Thielen shot through virtually untouched and blocked Brad Nortman’s punt, which landed right next to him. Thielen got up and raced 30 yards into the end zone, scoring his first NFL touchdown and becoming the first Viking to do the “Bank Vault” – the Minnesota equivalent of the Lambeau Leap.

Thielen said it wasn’t anything the Panthers did horribly wrong that sprung him free, it was simply a power rush by the Vikings that blew open a gap for him to get through.

“It don’t think it was especially that Carolina did anything (wrong), it was just we always have a block (play) up and hope somebody comes free,” Thielen said. “Coach Priefer and (assistant special teams coordinator Ryan) Ficken did a great job preparing us. We knew it was one of those things where we knew one of us was going to come free. I just came free. Nobody really blocked me and I knew I was going to block it.

“It hit me in the hands,” Thielen said. “I kind of dove for it and I was so far on him I had to move my hands down or it probably would have hit me right in the face.”

Thielen’s punt was the first blocked punt returned for a touchdown since Isaac Holt did it in 1996 – a span of 453 games. The new clock starting up until the next blocked punt for a touchdown would take much less time – less than 13 minutes.

Amazingly, just 12:25 of game time later, the Vikings struck again. Jasper Brinkley blew through an outside gap and blocked Nortman’s next punt attempt. After seeing what Thielen had done, Brinkley was looking to replicate the feat, but Everson Griffen beat him to the punch, picking up the loose ball in stride and bringing it back 43 yards for a second improbable TD.

“It hit me in the hands and the first thing I was trying to do was just locate it,” Brinkley said. “Ultimately, Everson got it and he was going the other way. I can’t ever remember a game like that with two blocked punts for scores. Maybe in high school, but that’s it.”

Brinkley got the block, but said much of the credit belonged to Brian Robison. On the play, the Vikings lined up with their base defense up front and Robison helped make the surge that sprung Brinkley.

“It wasn’t just me, everybody helped out on that play,” Brinkley said. “I had Brian Robison on the outside of me. He’s one of the most respected pass rushers in this league. I’m sure they looked at him over me, so we just helped each other out.”

Robison got an amazing surge off the ball and forced the blocker in between he and Brinkley to make the decision who to go after. He chose Robison and the rest was history.

“They basically had to choose,” Robison said. “They had to decide whether they were going to block Jasper underneath or block me on the outside. I had a great get-off on the ball and it allowed that guy to have to kick back a lot further, which allowed Jasper to come underneath.”

For his part Griffen just had to make the play in front of him, admitting with a chuckle that he got “pretty good wheels” from him mom and that he wasn’t going to get caught in the open field.

“The ball bounced right in front of me,” Griffen said. “I had to take it, scoop it and score. If it wasn’t for Jasper, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. But I saw the ball, picked it up and scored.”

As if the Panthers weren’t having enough problems, when Nortman did get punts away, Marcus Sherels made them pay – returning two punts, one for 26 yards and another for 19.

“It was really windy, so we knew it was going to be tough to punt in those conditions,” Sherels said. “We figured if we got a line drive, we could take advantage of it. We got a couple of low ones and I knew we could do something with it.”

On a day when the weather left the announced crowd of 52,016 (many of them disguised as empty seats) numb, the Vikings made history that made the special teams extremely special.

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